01 October 2012

MOOCs: the next Big Thing? or What about the teachers?

Ahh, yes … the next Big Thing.

Let’s have a definition first. According to Wikipedia (today at least), a MOOC – a massive open online course – is “a type of online course aimed at large-scale participation and open access via the web”, a recent development in the area of distance education, and a progression of the kind of open education ideals suggested by open educational resources. Typically, such courses are non-award courses, although some institutions are starting to offer credit for such courses and to certify those who complete them, if participants successfully complete some form of associated assessment.

So, what does a MOOC look like?

The first MOOCs were offered by enthusiasts very familiar with web tools and excited about the possibilities they open up for wide-scale participation and collaboration. Notions of constructivist learning were strong drivers for these early MOOCers. In 2005, George Siemens listed these:
  1. Learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinions. 
  2. Learning is a process of connecting specialised nodes or information sources. 
  3. Learning may reside in non-human appliances. 
  4. Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known. 
  5. Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning. 
  6. Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill. 
  7. Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities. 
  8. Decision making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.
More recently a number of “MOOC-like projects” have developed – Coursera, Udacity, and edX. These are driven in part, I suspect, by American notions of benevolence (or possibly American notions of entrepreneurship if we are to accept Greg Graham's recent comments in the Chronicle of Higher Education*). These “MOOC-like” courses rely less on constructivist principles, and more on a belief that it’s a good thing to give the poverty-stricken masses access to the vast bodies of knowledge available to the well-educated. They tend to be associated with respectable US universities. In the case of the first two, this is because the founders are or were employed by Stanford University, and the last because it has grown out of MIT’s open courseware project and now involves Harvard University.

Characteristics of MOOCs:
  1. Courses have many, many participants, only a small proportion of whom will be active contributors or even complete the course.
  2. MOOCs of all flavours provide participants with access to content selected and arranged into coherent topics by course designers who may or may not be involved in the delivery of the course.
  3. Some MOOCs, particularly those designed on constructivist principles, include opportunities for conversation, collaboration, and communication between participants. There may be some light facilitation or moderation, but this is not an essential element of the design of the course.
  4. Some MOOCs offer opportunities for assessment and some do not.
  5. MOOCs designed with a constructivist model in mind rely on peer review and group collaboration to leverage learning (rather than formative and summative feedback from a teacher).
  6. MOOCs designed with a more traditional mode of learning in mind replace teacher feedback with automated “pre-made” feedback provided via automatically marked, objective, online quizzes and examinations.
  7. And finally … and for me, this is the defining characteristic of a MOOC:
    While learning may occur in MOOCs (and apart from those that offer some form of assessment, the only people who will be able to attest to this are those who participate), teaching is practically non-existent.
By teaching, I mean proper, old-fashioned interaction between lecturer and student, where the lecturer gives the student information (tells, models, or shows course-related content) and goes on to provide learning experiences, monitor student learning, provide formative feedback, and judge how well students have achieved the learning outcomes for the course as a result of participating in structured learning activities. This sort of old-fashioned teaching may happen in a face-to-face context, but it could happen equally well in an online environment. Wherever it happens, the teacher is essential; it is the teacher who guides, nudges, demonstrates, models, tailors the learning experience to suit the students in this particular class, and provides personalised formative feedback just in time to ensure that students are provided with the bespoke designed experiences that they need to achieve course learning outcomes. Just as each class is distinctive, a good teacher will ensure that each version of the course is customized to suit that unique class. Each class will need something slightly different; a good teacher understands and provides that.

Siemens, one of the earliest MOOC authors, tells us that MOOCs based on a constructivist pedagogy draw on the following principles:
  • Aggregation: A MOOC provides a starting point for a massive amount of content to be produced in different places online, which is later aggregated as a newsletter or a web page accessible to participants on a regular basis.
  • Remixing: The second principle is remixing, that is, associating materials created within the course with each other and with materials elsewhere.
  • Re-purposing: Aggregated and remixed materials are re-purposed to suit the goals of each participant.
  • Feeding forward: This material is shared with other participants and the rest of the world.
Participants construct new knowledge by building on and discussing the content initially presented in the course. This new knowledge is then in turn built on and discussed and woven into the fabric of human wisdom.

These are all very good things, and teachers in traditional institutions can learn a great deal from George’s take on constructivist pedagogies – but if any teaching occurs in George’s MOOCs, it is probably peer-to-peer.

In the end, for me, MOOCs are a great idea, just as libraries are a great idea. They provide opportunities for people to read and talk about ideas new to them, to learn about any number of things. They do not threaten traditional universities, even those that offer an online experience, because the thing that defines an educational institution – even a research-intensive university like my own – is teaching.


* 1 October 2012, Greg Graham, "How the embrace of MOOCs could hurt middle America", Chronicle of Higher Education, found at http://chronicle.com/article/A-Pioneer-in-Online-Education/134654/ if you are a subscriber.

05 August 2012

Pondering things technological

When I was a very young teacher in training, I was strongly influenced by the work of the Canadian Marshall McLuhan and by Neil Postman’s book Teaching as a subversive activity. I’ve been prompted to buy Postman’s book again. This time, it will be delivered instantaneously to my e-book reader, which is perhaps ironic, given Postman’s warnings that contemporary mass communications media make it impossible to share serious ideas.

Postman died in 2003, and while much of his work has a slightly old-fashioned tone because of his focus on television, his message is highly relevant. For example, Postman concluded a presentation he delivered in 1998 with these words:

"And so, these are my five ideas about technological change. First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price. Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners. Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on. Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates. And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.

If we had more time, I could supply some additional important things about technological change but I will stand by these for the moment, and will close with this thought. In the past, we experienced technological change in the manner of sleep-walkers. Our unspoken slogan has been “technology ├╝ber alles,” and we have been willing to shape our lives to fit the requirements of technology, not the requirements of culture. This is a form of stupidity, especially in an age of vast technological change. We need to proceed with our eyes wide open so that we many use technology rather than be used by it."
The full text is available at Wikiversity: http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Neil_Postman:_Five_Things_We_Need_to_Know_About_Technological_Change. It's only a few pages long ... you could read it in your coffee break. It might give you as much to ponder as it did me.

29 March 2012

My Other blog

In my last posting, I invited you to subscribe to a Moodle site I had set up, called Teaching Techniques. This site was to be a password-protected site where I collected ideas about teaching strategies and techniques, tailored for those teaching face-to-face and online in universities and other tertiary institutions. I had made a good start, with 16-17 good ideas for content-independent ideas that could be implemented in tutorials and lecture theatres.

In the last couple of days, however, I have transferred that material to a new blog, called University Teaching: strategies and techniques. I've done this for two reasons. The first is to do with my time: I realised that I didn't want to spend time creating Moodle accounts for people. The second is to do with the acquisition of NetSpot (my Moodle host) by Blackboard. I'm just not sure what will happen to the DeborahVenessAssociates Moodle sites in the long-term.

So - the good news is that you can sign up for the new blog all on your own.

16 February 2012

Building the Teaching Techniques site

I’ve been having great fun this week, in between doing the tasks associated with my day job. I’ve been building a password-protected website (a Moodle site hosted by the excellent company NetSpot) where I’ve started to gather together an annotated list of the skills that might be selected to go into the kitbag of a very good teacher. Some of them are obvious – questioning technique, for example; others are old favourites revisited – the ERICA technique for teaching students to read content-laden, discipline material; and some are just fun – a web-based app to create make-believe newspaper clippings (already mentioned in an earlier post in this blog).

I expect that this will grow quite quickly. I’ve identified the next three topics already.

Some of the entries are very personal, while others direct readers to further resources. It’s not public, so if any of you, my dear readers, would like to get access, you’ll have to ask for a password. You can do that by emailing me at the address provided in my profile.

Here’s a taster …


Questioning students

Too often, teachers rely heavily on the kinds of questions known as display questions. I call them “guess-what’s-in-my-head” questions. Technically, these are questions designed to elicit learners’ prior knowledge and to check comprehension. They focus on declarative knowledge, and they look like this:

• What does … mean?
• When do we use …?
• What comes after …?
• … is [said with a rising intonation and followed by a long pause]? (This one is particularly irritating, I think.)
• What’s the opposite of …?

Equally irritating and equally useless – at least for purposes of engaging learners – are convergent or closed questions. Correct answers to these kinds of questions are narrowly defined and require little reflection or originality. They usually simply require students to remember stuff. They look like this:

• What do we call …?
• When did … do …?
• Where did … happen?

Of course, convergent and closed questions do serve a useful purposes. For example, they can be used to check that students have understood your instructions (“Are you working alone or in pairs? Have you finished? Are you going to write something now?”), to manage the class (“Are you discussing the topic? Can you see the board? Why are you sitting on your own?”), or to check on progress (“Are you ready to move on to the next topic? Do you have any questions?”).

The thing to remember about them, though, as that they are information-gathering; they provide the teacher with information about what the students know (or don’t know). They aren’t very interesting for the students.

The best questions for learning – and you have to teach students to be ready for them – are divergent or open-ended questions. These questions are broad and challenging and they often generate multiple answers. They require a level of thinking that is more demanding. They encourage students to offer opinions, to elaborate, to explain their conclusions, their reasoning, and their evidence, and to engage in discussion. Teachers who use these types of questions are engaging in conversations with students designed to stimulate learning rather than interrogating them about what they don’t know.

These questions look like this:

• What is the nature of [a concept … justice, truth, beauty]?
• How do we know what we know?
• How did you come to [a particular] conclusion?
• Why is it so?
• What else led you to this conclusion?

Consider the following series of questions:

1. Was Napoleon defeated at Waterloo?
2. Who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo?
3. How was Napoleon defeated at Waterloo?
4. Why was Napoleon at Waterloo? How do you know?
5. What would have happened if Napoleon hadn’t lost the Battle of Waterloo? Why?

We can be sure that students who can answer the last two question sets, outlining their evidence and explaining how they came to their conclusions, are going to do a lot better on any test about the Battle of Waterloo than students who can answer only the first three questions.

Once your students have become comfortable with divergent questions, you can introduce a structured questioning activity in each class or lecture.

Try the Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce technique. It goes like this.

1. Explain the technique.
2. Pose: Pose the question/s, reminding students that you don’t want them to answer immediately.
3. Pause: Tell the students to hold the thought, to think, and to think again. Be clear: no one is to speak until invited. (At this stage, you may wish to introduce small group discussions, or give students opportunity to write about the topic. Once they have an answer, have them sit and wait, reflecting on their answer, until you are ready to select someone to provide an answer.)
4. Pounce: Identify the student who is to answer; name the student (A). Wait for A’s answer. Don’t give the students any idea about your opinion of the answer.
5. Bounce: Once you have student A’s answer, bounce to student B and ask B to give his or her opinion of A’s answer. Bounce to student C: what does he or she think of B’s comment? Use reflective listening techniques: “A has told us that …; B thinks that …; C has thrown in the idea that …”.

6. Finally, sum up the conversation and clear up any remaining misconceptions.


Feedback is very welcome.

23 January 2012

Augmented Reality and my friend Matt

Today I had lunch with a friend, who is working on an amazing project with the InSPIRE Centre at the University of Canberra.  Matt Bacon is working on a project to investigate the educational value of augmented reality (a-r) technologies with a group of equally talented people - Robert Fitzgerald, Anna Wilson, and Danny Munnerly.  Wow.

He's already planted an a-r forest in the foyer of Parliament House in Canberra, and has promised to put something in the corridor outside my office. Augmented reality gives anyone with a viewing device access to information overlays of the world around them. These overlays contain information in the form of images or video or text, e.g. newly created objects or tags made up of data pulled from the Web. The overlays are being created willy-nilly by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons.

So, say you are sitting at a cafe on the campus of the Australian National University, and you want to know if anyone nearby is tweeting. Using the augmented reality viewers on your iPad, you can see where the tweeters are. If anyone has taken photos nearby and made them public using something like Instagram, you can see them using the a-r viewer.

Or ... say you are viewing Canberra from the Mt Ainslie lookout and you are wondering what it looked like before Lake Burley Griffin was full. If someone had built the 3-D image and uploaded it, you could hold your smart phone up, and see this alternate view.

I'm pretty sure we are going to hear more about this.

Oh ... and if you are in the foyer of the Australian Parliament House, and you want to see Matt's forest, you will need a smart phone or a tablet loaded up with the appropriate viewer (Junaio or Layar). Once you have opened the app on your device, search for AR Studio. Let me know what happens if you get there before me.

02 January 2012

The scholarship of teaching (as research)

I've long admired Rick Reis's newsletter from Stanford, Tomorrow's Professor. He is alert to important trends, drawing our attention to and providing brief but powerful analyses of key issues. His recent post on "the scholarship of teaching and learning as 'research' " is no different. This issue has been of concern to academic and educational developers for some time, and it is good to see the evidence Reis provides that this concern is seeping into the disciplines.

His latest post draws heavily on the work of Mary Taylor Huber, one of the best-known Americans writing on the topic, but his comments will resonate with Australians who have engaged with the conversations here about the implications of TEQSA and discipline-based standards documents, as well as those who have ever put together portfolios for promotion that include evidence of excellence in teaching, or prepared paperwork that includes written learning outcomes for courses or programs.

Read the full posting at http://derekbruff.com/site/tomprof/. Reis introduces the posting with this:

The good news is that disciplinary cultures themselves have become friendlier to pedagogical concerns over the past twenty years, with scholarly societies devoting more air-, column-, and cyberspace to teaching and learning in their conferences, journals, and web sites. The sciences, especially, have been encouraged by National Science Foundation programs to strengthen science education. But other fields too—sometimes spurred by the drive from accrediting bodies to articulate student learning outcomes—have stepped up to the plate.
In the next 12-18 months, every Australian university will be paying much closer attention to the aligned curriculum, learning outcomes, statements of academic achievement, and every related issue. Will we also see a greater recognition of the time and attention these require when it comes time for promotion?  If not, I can see no way forward except a complete bifurcation of the academic life, with teachers on the one side and researchers on the other. This would, in my opinion, come at the expense of the richness and depth of academic work and of the learning experience Australia provides for its university students.  (That's not to say that at any one point in a person's career there might be a greater focus on one or the other - for example, PhD theses rarely get written by those who are focussing all their attention on teaching.) However, the truly interesting academics (substitute "lecturers" or "faculty" here, depending on your preferred country of residence), in my experience, are those who are equally interested in creating knowledge through their research, and in sharing the impetus for their research, their methods for creating that new knowledge, and the new knowledge itself, with both their peers and their students through both their writing and their teaching.

I think we at risk of losing something very important, so I hope posts like Reis's are being discussed across the country. Fingers crossed, eh?